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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Nature of Ideology

I’ve been re-reading Temple Grandin’s wonderful book, Animals in Translation, and it has some important things to say about ideology and abstraction. For those of you who don’t know Grandin, she is the top designer of animal handling facilities in the world, a PhD with over one hundred published papers in both biology and psychology, and autistic. She attributes her success to being ‘detail-oriented’, and claims that most people cannot see the problems she sees because they are too ‘abstractified.’ Interestingly, she, much as the British Idealists did, relates abstraction to ideology, and complains that, rather than plainly seeing the situation with which they are asked to deal, many of the people she encounters substitute an abstract, ideological view of the situation, thereby falsifying reality, often with bad results. She offers an example of a woman who owned a fair number of dogs. Some of the ‘pack’ she had created were naturally more dominant, and others more submissive. She was repeatedly advised that she had to accept this as a fact, since that is the way dogs are, and, for instance, always greet the more dominant dogs first when she came home. But, her mind captured by an ideology of equality, she refused to listen, with the outcome that the dominant dogs would attack the submissive ones for improperly taking ‘first dibs’ with the master, so that finally three of the dogs had to be put down.

Grandin discusses the constraints of biology upon animal nature at some length; in particular, she devotes many pages to how a simplified, abstract understanding of genetics can bring about radically undesirable results when applied. For example, the single-trait breeding of chickens, first for quick growth, then for lots of breast meat, and finally for the vitality not to collapse after growing so much meat so quickly, led to rapist/murderer roosters – the various traits being bred for did not exist in the simple isolation of an abstract genetic model, but interacted with the rest of chicken biology in unpredictable ways, so that the roosters produced by the three successive breeding efforts had often forgotten how to do the proper mating dance to seduce a hen, and wound up raping and killing the females when they wanted to mate.

How does this relate to ideology? Well, I have encountered people who contend that monogamy is ‘irrational,’ sexual possessiveness immoral, and that we ought to consciously work to eliminate these elements from human life. But Grandin notes that sexual possessiveness, across many species, seems to be strongly connected to taking great care for one’s offspring. The ideological conviction that such possessiveness is irrational ignores this basic biological fact; if this ideology ever holds full sway, the result after enough generations pass will be humans quite unlike ourselves, who have little interest in raising their children. Whether the human race would survive that change I have no idea, but it certainly is not what the ideologues intend; instead, they are seeing these traits in abstraction, like elements in a model, where they can pluck out any element that offends them without otherwise affecting the whole.

The grip of ideology is usually broken only by the force of reality shattering it. I recall, in particular, two experiences that had that sort of impact on me. One, suggested by John Goes in a previous thread, came about during my second stay in Switzerland. During my first trip I had fallen in love with the country, and had to go back. Spending more time there on trip two, I thought I was in the most naturally orderly and civic-minded place I had ever been – and, I realized, if the Swiss ever adopted the open border policy I had advocated until then, that place would be gone in a decade. Now, when I recently expressed some reservations about unrestricted immigration on a libertarian blog, I was immediately accused of being a ‘xenophobe.’ To anyone who knows I spent ten years playing in a reggae band, often finding myself to be the only native-born American in the club I was in, and who knows I am married to an immigrant, and so on, that accusation might seem unlikely. But consider the context that led me to change my mind – I was in a foreign country, enchanted by these foreigners culture, and was worried that too many people like me moving there might ruin things. That is a funny sort of xenophobia. But to preserve an ideological view, such name-calling is necessary, to prevent reality from intruding. I imagine the woman mentioned above with the dog pack thought of those pointing out that she was acting recklessly as ‘dog elitists,’ who were in favor of ‘oppression’ of the timid dogs by the more aggressive ones.

My second major breaking in of reality had to do with public school teachers. After my kids begged me to let them attend our local public school, I found that ideology had created in my mind a bogeyman public employee and that, try as I might, I couldn’t force the real public employees I was dealing with to conform to this taxpayer-sucking parasite monster. The actual teachers and administrators I dealt with were dedicated to their jobs and were focused on helping kids, not on draining the public coffers to feather their own nests.

Now, a non-ideological approach to issues like the above need not be blind to existing problems or deaf to every case for reform. The public schools in the US certainly do have many problems, and it would be good to fix them. Immigration restrictions are not a panacea, and bring with them serious civil liberty and humanitarian concerns. But to adopt a simplistic stance towards those situations based upon ‘principles’ that are in reality little more than slogans – “immigration control is xenophobic” or “the public schools are evil monopolies that brainwash our children” – is unlikely to produce improvement. Instead, the discussion of the problems is degraded, and the targets of the slogans usually wind up getting their backs up, closing their minds to even reasonable reforms.

Finally, let me assert once more that I don’t mean to be picking on libertarians here – some of my best friends are libertarians. But that happens to be the ideology to which I was committed, and, so, it is the easiest one for me to mine for examples. Indeed, everything I write here should be understood primarily as self-criticism, and only secondarily as directed at anyone else.

Which brings me to my final, final point. A while back, my friend Bob Murphy remarked that the fellow who had inspired him to abandon his former materialism had become “Gene the cranky.” I think I now understand better why that was so: I was going through a painful struggle between my attachment to everything I had built up tied to a particular ideology – my many good friends, my professional contacts, my public reputation, my sources of funding – and the acceptance of the facts that reality was forcing upon me. Sadly, all too often, it is easier to project any internal conflict outwards than to acknowledge what is really going on, and, thus, “Gene the cranky.” So, to those who were subjected to my crankiness, let me offer a blanket apology. (If you want a personal one, you will have to take a number.)

33 comments:

  1. Grandin was diagnosed with autism, if I remember. Perhaps a-abstractionism (is there a word for this?) is the autistic contribution to neurodiversity.

    I'm enjoying this line of posts. It's endlessly fascinating to me how ideology gets in the way and to what extent one can be aware of ideology as a distorting force. Philosophy at its most practical.

    Incidentally, with regard to autism and abstraction in the form of stories, Tyler Cowen has a nice, short TED talk on the role of stories in human understanding. He also seems to be a big proponent of autism as playing a healthy role in a neurodiverse society.

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  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwTJXHNP0bg

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  3. Nice, Gene. I think I basically agree with you. We could enter into the multiple meanings of "ideology" and son on, but I think I'm with you. Every political ideology has its buzz words that can hinder thought and communication.

    FWIW, one of my discomforts with libertarianism is the often promiscuous use of terms such as "the market" and "regulation." Other ideologies have their buzz words, such as "social justice" and "family values."

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  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, thanks for so lucidly explaining your position.

    However, I do have a question concerning this push back against ideology: what do we fall back on when values conflict?

    Say a policy for ID cards is proposed, and the government claim that the policy will significantly improve the security of citizens (I know this is perhaps, in reality, unlikely to be the case).

    In these circumstances is it permissible to simply oppose the policy on the basis of individual freedom? Or should proposals such as this prompt us to weigh up competing values with regard to achieving a particular good end?

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  5. ...I realized, if the Swiss ever adopted the open border policy I had advocated until then, that place would be gone in a decade.

    Oh my gosh, now I understand what is going on here. Palin-Callahan 2012. Gene you sly dog.

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  6. "Grandin was diagnosed with autism, if I remember."

    Well, John, perhaps you remember that from this very post!

    :-)

    "a-abstractionism (is there a word for this?)"

    Post-Hegelians (of both the Marxist and of the Idealist camp) refer to "the concrete universal."

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  7. Could I ask what it is you so admired in Switzerland? (That is not a rhetorical question; I'm genuinely curious. I've never stepped foot in that stretch of land.)

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  8. I find your arguments persuasive but am left with questions over what you think a non-ideological approach to problems would entail. My main concern is basically the same issue raised by James Hill. How does one evaluate a problem without ideology?

    Are you suggesting a generally pragmatic approach and if so what do you make of the shortcomings attributed to pragmatism?

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  9. I second rocksauce. It would be enlightening what a nonideological approach looks like.

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  10. "I find your arguments persuasive but am left with questions over what you think a non-ideological approach to problems would entail. My main concern is basically the same issue raised by James Hill. How does one evaluate a problem without ideology?"

    See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Ideology is the mistaken attempt to deal with the practical world as if it were the theoretical world. We use prudence, not theory, to answer practical questions. Theory deals only with the universal, but the aim of action is always the particular. How does one know how to handle one's children, or talk to one's lover, without an ideology of children or love? Well, much better than with such an ideology!

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  11. I suppose ideology is so attractive because it offers one the sense that their political positions are grounded in the universal.

    Thank you for replying. Having thought through this again I think I have a handle on your position, and as you seem to simply advocate reliance on rational thought over (potentially) irrational ideological conviction it looks pretty sweet to me.

    When you first critiqued the NAP a while back you said something to the effect of how far down the libertarian rabbit hole many people had disappeared, which I thought was an overstatement at the time. But the ongoing inability of so many critics to see the circularity of the NAP, or at least dispute your logic rather than your motives, is eye-opening if disappointing.

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  12. Yes, rocksauce, it's been rather surprising to me how so many people have misread (dodged?) what I have been saying. I have been addressing narrowly a single argument, and yet I keep getting responses like, "Oh, so you're saying libertarians have no reasons for their beliefs?"

    Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!

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  13. As to Switzerland, I would simply ask: What would entitle the Swiss to collectively impose violence upon those who would seek to immigrate there? I realize I'm invoking abstract principles to conclude that there is no justification for such violence. Perhaps that makes me an ideologue, but does it make me wrong?

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  14. John, what would justify your "imposing violence" on me for trying to move into your house? It's your house, huh?

    Well, it's their country.

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  15. Gene,

    It's their country???

    If I want to sell my house to Pedro the Mexican is it my house or your country?

    Likewise if Hans the Swiss guy wants to sell his house to an alien, is it still his house to dispose of as he sees fit or not?


    You like Switzerland the way it is but obviously many peaceful individuals would prefer it otherwise, else there would be no need to forcefully bar many obviously peaceful exchanges. Why you apparently assign moral weight to your ( or anyone's) preference as to the disposition of the property of others is puzzling to me.

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  16. Yes, John, it is *their* country. Communal ownership of land long, long predates private ownership, which was, in fact, created by communal agreement -- and therefore the community absolutely has a say in how you use "your" land.

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  17. Slavery predates the recognition of natural rights. Shall we agree that slavery is not wrong since it's practice predates recognition that it was wrong?

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  18. Come on, John, do try to be serious here. I was claiming that individual property rights in land -- a great idea, by the way! -- are grounded in and arise from prior communal property holdings. Do you really mean to contend that the idea of human rights *arose from* the institution of slavery?

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  19. To explain further: "private" property can only have meaning within the context of a community which creates and recognizes private property rights. For your analogy to work, individual rights could only have meaning within a slave-holding society!

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  20. And thus the libertarian "principle" of absolute property rights can be seen to rest on a fairytale: the fairytale created by Locke of "original", individual homesteading of unoccupied land. Now, no doubt, this fairytale occassionally was lived out, post Locke, by some such as the settlers of the American west. But they were created by Locke, and never existed before him. He had devised a fairytale suitable to justify the vast inequalities in landholding characterizing his society, and subsequently some people took it seriously and tried to make it real. (Although even the "individualist" American homesteaders were pretty anxious to have the cavalry come in and wipe out those pesky Indians who thought their COMMUNITIES had some prior claim to those lands.)

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  21. Property rights are not a social construction, they are a consequence of man's nature as Locke explained and the American founding fathers understood. Briefly, property rights in land arise out of the mixing of labor with the land.

    If I grow corn on a plot of land that you have no prior right to, then it would be wrong (as aggression) for you to take my corn or interfere with it's production. You are not entitled to my labor or the fruit of my labor, nor are you entitled to damage it. I'm entitled to the fruit of my labor because I produced it. This natural moral principle leads to the concept of property.

    "It's their land."

    What does such ownership mean? Were the Germans entitled to liquidate Jews in Germany? It was their land after all.

    Do you recognize any moral principles at all anymore? Right and wrong? If so, based on what?

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  22. As you know, Locke was not offering a history but rather an illustration of the principle out of which property rights arise.

    How did America's supposed communal ownership arise, and who were the parties to the communal agreement?

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  23. " We use prudence, not theory, to answer practical questions. Theory deals only with the universal, but the aim of action is always the particular. "

    Science deals with the universal, the aim of engineering is the particular. Do not engineers use the universal principles to answer practical questions?

    Is it your position that there are no universal principles of human nature that have been or can be discovered?

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  24. "Science deals with the universal, the aim of engineering is the particular. Do not engineers use the universal principles to answer practical questions?"

    John, I address this in my most recent Aristotle post. In brief, these universal principles are "rules of thumb" for practice, as I well know from my years as an engineer -- there were no more pathetic engineers than the guys who came straight out of grad school thinking they could just apply the rules they had learned mechanically.

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  25. "As you know, Locke was not offering a history..."

    So, Lockean homesteading justifies private property, even though it never happened?!

    "Hey, John, what justifies you having that watch?"

    "The fact that I bought it from the jeweler that made it."

    "Oh, so that's what really happened?"

    "No, what really happened is that I hit some guy on the head and took it. But the story about buying it from the jeweler is what justifies my having it."

    In any case, look for a post on homesteading tomorrow.

    "How did America's supposed communal ownership arise, and who were the parties to the communal agreement?"

    John, where did I say America is communally owned?

    In any case, here is how ownership arose in New Haven, the history of which I am familiar: A group of colonist, tired of Massachusetts not being Puritan enough, left and sailed down to New Haven. Their, the leaders divided the land up into plots and assigned plots to various colonists. So that is how the community established ownership, with no "mixing of labor" involved.

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  26. "Property rights are not a social construction, they are a consequence of man's nature as Locke explained and the American founding fathers understood."

    Yes, they bought into Locke's fairy tale. Tomorrow I will explain why.

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  27. "Their, the leaders divided the land up into plots and assigned plots to various colonists. So that is how the community established ownership, with no "mixing of labor" involved."

    Really?

    So if the next day they moved 10 miles down the coast they could have divvied up the land there, and likewise the next day and eventually they'd own pretty much the entire coastline of the Americas without hardly touching the land.

    But the dummies stayed in New Haven _and mixed their labor with the land_, oddly enough.

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  28. OK, John, you verging on being just stupidly annoying now. Probably most of the colonists did "mix their labor" with their land -- but maybe some of them just rented it to someone else without ever "mixing their labor" with it. The point is how their ownership came about, not what they did afterwards. And their ownership did not come about in the way Locke said it did.

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  29. ""The fact that I bought it from the jeweler that made it."

    "Oh, so that's what really happened?"

    "No, what really happened is that I hit some guy on the head and took it. But the story about buying it from the jeweler is what justifies my having it.""


    But as you know, and as i've already pointed out, Locke's illustration was never offered as history and neither he nor the founding fathers nor I ever argued that the illustration established the legitimacy of particular existing property titles.

    You know this, yet you continue to charcterize the argument falsely.

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  30. John, I'm not "characterizing" Locke's argument as anything. I'm saying that because it has nothing to do with what actually happened, it's meaningless. Whatever Locke thought he was doing, it had nothing to do with actually existing property.

    So will you please stop falsely characterizing me as "characterizing" Locke in any way whatsoever? I know it's rough when you see the shifting sands upon which you've built your worldview being swept away by logic -- believe me, I've just been through it myself, so I know! -- but that really doesn't justify this tactic.

    Now, if you want to understand what homesteading is really all about, see my new post. I'm going to close out this thread, John, so comment over there if you wish to.

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  31. Oh, let me add, after a moments thought: John, you pretty much flat-out accused me of lying. And, since I never said Locke's argument was meant to be an historical argument -- only that, since it was so false to history, it has to do with some world other than our own -- you were just making up what I was supposed to be lying about.

    That's really pretty ugly.

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